SEATTLE — You might not know this, but in Washington, schools don’t have to teach sex education.
State law only requires school districts to teach students about HIV and AIDS prevention every year, starting no later than the fifth grade. But after a failed attempt last year, lawmakers are again trying to make comprehensive sexual health education a mandate for all Washington public schools.
Supporters argue that the lack of a consistent, statewide set of standards for sex education means students may fill in the gaps themselves — and expose themselves to risk.
A survey of nearly 9,000 eighth-graders in 2018 found about two-thirds of them had been taught about abstinence and other ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Still, “we’ve seen an incredibly disturbing trend with a climb in (adolescent) STD rates in our state,” according to Laurie Dils, who oversees sex education for the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
On Thursday, she presented the recommendations of a state work group that wants the Legislature to require all public schools to provide some form of sex education to every student — from kindergarten to 12th grade — by the 2022-23 academic year.
The proposal certainly has its opponents, including politicians and parents who wonder why elementary kids need to know about reproduction and gender identity. A legislative hearing last week highlighted some questions and concerns.
What do Washington schools currently teach about sexual health?
If local school boards choose to go beyond HIV and AIDS prevention, they must use materials that align with the state’s Healthy Youth Act — meaning the instruction needs be medically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate and inclusive of all students.
The state does not set a specific curriculum or required content. But it does define “sexual health education” as an individual’s developing body, mind and social interactions. The definition also covers skills to build healthy and meaningful relationships, choosing healthy behaviors and understanding the influence that family, peers and the media have on sex.
In 2018, the state superintendent’s office surveyed all 295 school districts about sex education. Of the 285 that responded, 93 percent provided some instruction in at least one grade band: 65 percent in kindergarten through fifth grade, 86 percent in grades 6-8 and 75 percent in grades 9-12.
Students shared what they were taught in school on the Healthy Youth Survey: In 10th grade — as 26 percent of students reported ever having sex — nearly three-quarters had lessons on preventing pregnancy and STDs, either through abstinence or other methods. In their senior year, about 4 in 10 students were taught about abstinence or other prevention methods, and 47 percent said they ever had sex.
Why does the state superintendent’s office want all schools to teach sex education?
Because, the superintendent’s office says, evidence shows that teens face significant sexual health risks and sexual violence.
Data from the Washington State Department of Health show that, since 2014, the number of adolescents in Washington with STDs has been on the rise, with the largest increases among males. While gonorrhea rates climbed 71 percent in just four years, syphilis rates more than doubled among 15- to 19-year-olds.
And more students in the eighth and 12th grades have reported unwanted sexual contact and dating violence, according to the Healthy Youth Survey.
Andrea Alejandra, a student at Washington State University Vancouver, told lawmakers Thursday about her experience with sexual abuse and growing up in a religious household.
“I didn’t know what boundaries were. I didn’t know how to say, ‘No,’ ” she said.
“I wish I had something like this to tell me, ‘This is your body and you have the right to protect it,’ ” Alejandra added. “I wish someone had told me at an earlier age.”
What does “comprehensive” sex education even mean?
The state superintendent’s office lists 20 different topics that it uses to define “comprehensive” sexual health education, including:
• The benefits of abstaining from sex.
• How well condoms work — or don’t — and how to obtain and use them.
• The importance of limiting the number of sexual partners.
• Sexual orientation and gender roles, identity and expression.
• The relationship between alcohol and other drug use and risky sexual behavior.
House Bill 2184 would require every public school to provide comprehensive sexual health education to each student by the 2022-23 school year. But starting in 2020-21, school districts already providing comprehensive sexual health education must include information about affirmative consent and bystander training.
Senate Bill 5395, which died during last year’s legislative session but was reintroduced this week, would hasten the requirement for statewide sex education to September 2021.
Both bills also would require schools to teach students about affirmative consent — meaning, all parties need to consciously, intentionally and voluntarily agree to engage in sexual activity.
Does the proposed legislation impede local control or the right of parents to opt their children out of sex education?
Under either bill, school districts could still choose or create their own sexual health curriculum, provided it aligns with state standards. Parents and guardians also would retain their right to opt their children out of such classes.
State Sen. Brad Hawkins, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s education committee, voted against SB 5395 last year. A former school board member in Eastmont, he said the Legislature should defer to locally elected officials and not mandate comprehensive sex education across all 295 school districts.
“That would be a significant erosion of local control,” said Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee. “People closest to an issue are usually in the best position to make a decision for their communities, and our school districts are not arms of the state.”
Who’s for and against this proposal?
Most of the controversy centers on what would be taught in kindergarten through third grade.
In an online survey that drew more than 10,000 responses — a majority of which came from parents — the state superintendent’s office found 58 percent of respondents believe comprehensive sexual health education should not be required across grades K-12. The other 42 percent said it should be.
Last year, the Senate divided along party lines to advance SB 5395 to the House, where the legislation died.
But in the Senate’s education committee, many organizations — and some young people — testified in support of the bill: the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the state teachers union, Planned Parenthood and students from Olympia High School and Western Washington University.
On Thursday, the House education committee reserved little time for public comment on HB 2184. Many parents and students testified in support of the proposed legislation.
Others worried about exposing elementary students to sexual content.
Riel Lord drove from Camas to testify against HB 2184, arguing that one currently approved curriculum instructs students to search online for information about their body without warning them about the dangers of pornography.
“They want to teach second-graders that cats and dogs reproduce. Why do second-graders need to know that?” said Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver. “The more this becomes a conversation that we introduce this at younger grades … these decisions lead to more sex among teenagers.”